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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

In the Footsteps of the Grand Tour

Aggie photographer Taylor Runnells documents a trip through London, Paris, the Alps and Rome

The Grand Tour was a journey embarked upon by young British aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were usually people who had just finished university and travelled to the European continent in order to expand their minds — artistically, socially and culturally. Two hundred or so years later, a group of 28 UC students and one Australian followed in their footsteps with the same goals in mind. Our lodging was less elegant, but our travel was much more advanced. Before this trip, I had never left the United States. Now, I have experienced 10 cities in three countries in less than a month, all with a really amazing group of people. I saw landmarks and sculptures and art pieces with my own eyes that I’ve seen in textbooks since I was a child. I’ve walked the River Thames and climbed the Eiffel Tower, and I say, without a doubt, that every day was an experience I will not forget.

On our first day in London, we went on a hop-on, hop-off bus tour through Central London, and happened to hop off right as the changing of the guards was happening in front of Buckingham Palace. There were thousands upon thousands of people gathered at and around the gates, so for me to capture this photo without there being anyone in it was an extremely lucky feat.
Obligatory photo of the Queen Elizabeth Tower with Big Ben inside. In the back you can see the London Eye peaking through the buildings.
Most of the Grand Tourists had studied at Oxford or Cambridge, so on our fifth day of the program we took a bus to Oxford where our professor, who spent some time studying there for graduate school, gave us a tour of the college. Afterwards, we went punting down the Cherwell River, five people to each boat. The captain of our boat, Lim, had such good control of the boat that we started going in circles in the middle of the river so as to not get too far ahead of our classmates.
On our first free day, a group of five of us took a train from London to the old city of Salisbury, home to the tallest cathedral spire in all of the UK. It is also located only 8 miles from Stonehenge, pictured here. Walking around millennia-old rocks, brought to this spot for who knows what reason, you can almost feel the ancient magic in the shadows of the stones.
After a week in London, we moved onto the second leg of our trip: Paris. Thanks to high-speed rails, it only took us about two hours to get from London to Paris, and only a half hour to get through the English Channel. This is a photo of the view outside of my dorm room in Paris, located only about a 15 minute walk from the Notre Dame and only five minutes from Luxembourg Palace. I was lucky enough to have a balcony, where I spent most of my evenings journaling and drinking French wine.
On our first full day in Paris, after climbing to the second deck of the Eiffel, we had a picnic on the River Seine as a class and then embarked on a river boat tour. We happened to pass by the Notre Dame cathedral right at sunset, and I got this amazing photo of the back of the cathedral silhouetted against the sky.
The day before Bastille Day, we journeyed to Château de Versailles, a palace so grand that there is absolutely no question why the French revolted against its residents, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This picture is of the Grand Trianon, which was basically Marie Antoinette’s escape palace, located about a 20 minute walk from the Château de Versailles. We also visited “Peasantville,” a name given to the peasant village created by Marie Antoinette when she wanted to further escape royal life and instead spend time spinning wool and pretending to be a milk maid.
Taken on the Champs de Mars. We were extremely lucky to have gotten this spot, having arrived at around 9:30 p.m. in the busiest part of Paris on Bastille Day, only an hour and a half before the fireworks show began. It was nearly a perfect view, with the École Militaire behind us, the statue of Joffre silhouetted on the left, and a platform that wouldn’t stop ruining all my shots in the front. The fireworks show opened with the French national anthem, followed by music from the latest Star Wars trailer, and also included some Frank Sinatra and classical French orchestra.
Taking a break from urban life, we spent three days in the mountain town of Chamonix. On our first day there, we were able to go inside Montenvers, casually dubbed the “Frankenstein Glacier,” the spot where Victor Frankenstein and his monster reunite in Mary Shelley’s novel. Fitting, then, that I captured this photo of my friend Phil silhouetted against the outside light, looking fairly zombied-out.
After the ice cave, we hiked about 40 minutes uphill to Le Signal, a beautiful trip with vast vistas and friendly mountain goats. A group of us split off afterwards for another hike, where our professor led us to the Plan de l’Aiguille, seen in this photo as the little hut on the hill in the distance. It took us about two hours, with every twist and turn providing a beautiful aerial view of Chamonix down below.
Our reward for the hike. From the hut, we took a telepherique up to Aiguille du Midi, an observation deck built into the side of the glacier at 12,600 feet. From here we saw Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe, pictured here in the center. It was breathtaking; I have never been so in awe of anything in my life.
On our second day in Chamonix, the majority of our group took a hike up to Lac Blanc. Though the hike sounded fun, three of us decided we wanted to go paragliding instead, so we booked online and met some instructors at the Le Brevent telepherique. After a ride up, we strapped in with our instructors and ran off a 6,000 foot cliff — just our parachute and the wind to guide us. We glided around the mountains, yelling at hikers when we got close enough for them to hear. After an extremely smooth twenty minutes, we landed safely at the bottom of the mountain. It was probably the craziest thing I have ever done, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
After Chamonix we took a 12 hour bus ride to Rome for our last leg of the trip. On our second day, we toured the Ancient City, walking through 2,000-year-old palaces and markets. This photo was taken from the palace of Caesar Augustus. The Colosseo is visible in the distance.
Being Grand Tourists, we obviously had to go inside the Colosseo, which was amazing. I’ve been inside countless sport stadiums and arenas, but nothing compares to these ruins.
On our last Monday abroad, we went to the Vatican and were chauffeured around by a lovely little Italian woman named Teresa — “not to be confused with the mother,” as she told us. She was hilarious and informative, combining history with modernity, including pointing out sculptures that looked like Bill Clinton and how certain boys had bigger bay leaves than other ones covering them, “for obvious reasons.” Once inside the Sistine Chapel, however, we had to depart, which was tragic. This is a photo of the ceiling of the Chapel, which I was totally forbidden to take but I did it anyway, because how can you not commemorate such a masterpiece?
Our last excursion as a class was to Pompeii and Naples. Pictured here is the main plaza in Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance, covered, thankfully, by clouds and not ash. After touring the ruins, we stopped off at the Naples Archaeological Museum, home to the more interesting mosaics and art pieces from Pompeii. Included in the museum is the “Secret Cabinet,” which is an exhibit that features ancient pornographic mosaics, used for communication between prostitutes and their customers, and thus are extremely graphic. Our group probably spent a little too much time giggling at ancient phallic statues, to the point that our tour guide was probably a little tired of us afterward.
For our last free day, a group of six of us took a high speed rail to Florence. Our first stop was at the Galleria dell’Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David, pictured here. No amount of warning can prepare you for the sheer size of the statue, or the stunning detail, from the arm veins to the look of fear in his eyes.
After a long day in Florence, traversing markets and gawking at architecture, we climbed up to the Piazzale Michelangelo at the height of the city. This is a picture of Il Duomo di Firenze, a cathedral that has stood since the 1400s. It is, without a doubt, one of the most stunning cathedrals I have seen, and we saw a lot on this trip, including St. Peter’s in Vatican City, and I still found this one more impressive.
The Piazzale Michelangelo is known best for its views, and thus it gets crowded at sunset, for obvious reasons. Here, the Arno River stretches out through Florence, reflecting the sun as it sets behind the mountains. I think Florence was definitely the prettiest city I have ever visited.


The end of the trip was bittersweet; I grew so attached to Europe, my classmates and being able to wander historic cities with people that I grew to care so much about. I was exhausted — physically, mentally, academically and emotionally — but I know there is still so much more to see, both in Europe and the rest of the world. The Grand Tour opened by eyes to different cultures, to history from a different perspective, to a world that is so much bigger than I thought, and I thank my instructor, John Stenzel, our on-site coordinator Dana Armstrong, and every single one of my fellow Grand Tourists for such an amazing experience.

Photos by: Taylor Runnells — photo@theaggie.org


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